Solving The Family Business Riddle

How do you separate family from family business? And other conundrums…

The words “family business” are something of an oxymoron, pitting the personal with the professional and the home with the workplace. The combination can be rewarding for those who follow this path; but it is not without its share of unique challenges. Where the worlds of family and business overlap, several questions arise. What do you call your parents at the office? How do you separate family life from business? With so many GAWDA member companies being family owned or operated, these issues are familiar to many members. So who better to answer these questions than GAWDA’s family business members? Welding & Gases Today spoke with ten such individuals to get to the bottom of these family business issues.

Addressing Family Members
One of the most fundamental issues that employees in a family business face is what to call their parents at the office. The ten members we spoke with were divided on this issue. Exactly half refer to their father as “Dad,” “Father” or some variation of this.

“Whether we’re talking in the office or in front of others, I still call him Dad. That’s who he is to me,” says Todd Linnenbringer, vice president at Delta Gases (Maryland Heights, MO). Linnenbringer points out that his relationship to his father is no secret to employees or regular customers. “Being a small company, everybody knows he’s my father.”

Other members say that using a family title is a matter of respect. Doug Lampton, vice president at Lampton Welding Supply Company (Wichita, KS), says, “I address my father as Dad. I was raised with the belief that calling my parents by their first names is disrespectful to them. He’s my dad 24/7.”

Among the five members who call their parents by name, the reasons given are similar. “Sometimes when we’re together, I’ll call him Dad, but the majority of the time I call him John,” says Chris Albanese, vice president at Advanced Welding Supply Company (Greenfield, WI). “I do it to seem more professional.” Albanese says addressing each other was not a discussion he had with his father, but more of a mutual understanding. He adds, “In our family life, he calls me Christopher, but when we’re in front of customers, it’s Chris.”

Abydee Butler, marketing director at Butler Gas Products (Pittsburgh, PA), also cites professionalism as the rationale for using her father’s first name. “I want people to take me seriously. It just doesn’t sound right when I say, ‘My dad says’ or ‘Did you ask my dad?’” For Butler, the realization came while working the summer after her freshman year of college. “I had to page my father over the loudspeaker and said, ‘Dad, please call extension 316.’ After I hung up, I was mortified. If a customer had heard that, I don’t think it would seem very professional.”

A Strategic Approach
Members from both camps agree that each approach has its advantages. Albanese finds that using “Dad” can be effective in specific applications. “Sometimes a customer will call asking for John, and they only want to speak to him. I’ll say, ‘That’s my father. Is there something I can help you with?’ Once they know that, they are willing to talk to me.”

On the other hand, Linnenbringer, who prefers to use “Dad,” says there are times when customers do not need to know about the relationship. “If I’m collecting money from a customer, I believe it’s more effective if they don’t know I am part of the ownership group,” he says. “I might say, ‘I need to let my boss know when we’re going to see a check.’ When you’re trying to make a sale, it takes a little pressure off if they think your boss is harping on you.”

Drawing the Line
Keeping family life and business separate is no easy task for members of a family business. However, many of the GAWDA members we spoke to say it’s important to maintain a balance. “It’s hard enough to get work out of your mind when you run a business,” says Albanese. He and his father make a concerted effort not to talk shop outside of work. “You’re with the business wherever you go, especially with smartphones. It’s important to take a break when you’re not working. Otherwise you’re going to burn yourself out.”

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Butler admits that blending the worlds of family and business is hard to avoid. “Thanksgiving used to be a work meeting,” she says, noting that most of the family has been involved in the business at one point or another. “Calling my father Jack at work and Dad outside of work helps us make that separation. It helps him know when I’m talking to him as his daughter and when I’m talking to him as an employee.”

Working in a family business is a great opportunity, but it certainly comes with its share of unique challenges. How do you separate family from family business? What other unique challenges arise in a family business? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association